Originally Published 9/14/2022
Pittsburgh Post Gazette

From families completely out of food to exploding call volumes, food banks across the Pittsburgh area are seeing their services taxed in new ways as the summer draws to a close and inflation remains high.

Jessica Horvath, 45, is one of those individuals who has never used a food pantry until now. She visited the Northside Food Pantry for the first time this week to receive groceries for her family.

Ms. Horvath, a single mother with 10-year-old twins, moved from Jacksonville, Fla., to Pittsburgh, in June, believing the city would be a better place to raise her daughters. 

“I finally found a job here, but I don’t start until October,” Ms. Horvath, a social worker, said. “I have to find different ways to make ends meet financially until then.”

She said inflation has made paying for “rent, food, gas — just the basic necessities — extremely tough.”

Jana Thompson, the manager of the Northside Food Pantry, said that demand at the pantry is up about a quarter this month, and the families they serve are now larger. She said most of the new needs are from children.

The Food Bank of Greater Pittsburgh, a nonprofit that distributes food in 11 counties in Southwestern Pennsylvania, has also seen the demand for their emergency food pantry soar to seven times more than this time last year.

In August 2021, fewer than 300 people used the service. A year later, it was nearly 2,000.

It’s an issue across the United States. The Biden administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Wednesday they will provide nearly $1.5 billion in additional funding for emergency food assistance nationally.

Ms. Horvath, who speaks Spanish and earned a master’s degree online from Capella University in Minnesota, said she will soon work as a bilingual caseworker at the Holy Family Institute. She will help people who are often in the same situation she has suddenly found herself in.

“Most cases are families with single parents in need of food, shelter, clothing, financial assistance,” she said. “I feel it’s circular. When you’re in a poor situation, there’s someone there to help you, and then when it’s your turn to help someone else, you do the same.”

Ms. Horvath and her daughters are currently staying in her church’s basement as they wait to move into an apartment at the end of September. Ms. Horvath is still working to secure rental assistance, which is difficult now that most pandemic-era rental assistance programs have ended.

“I’m calling around. I haven’t hit a dead end yet,” Ms. Horvath said. “I have to be grateful, because I have a roof over my head. I have a bed. We have food, and I have a car that works.”

Needs across the board have also increased at the Food Bank of Greater Pittsburgh, from SNAP enrollments (which are up 14% from October 2021 to June 2022) to senior boxes and drive-up distribution.

The food bank’s call center now regularly receives over 100 calls a day. A spokesperson said callers’ main concern is the price of gas, and that some have found they can’t even afford to drive to work or medical appointments.

Inflation has also hit the food bank’s operations, as government commodities are winding down and the price of food remains up by 50% per pound over pre-pandemic prices. Grocery prices have continued to rise, increasing by 13.5% over the last year — the biggest 12-month increase since 1979.

For seniors on fixed incomes, inflation is cutting into grocery budgets and bringing them to pantries, according to the food bank. In order to save cash, people have been focusing on buying cheaper, less nutritious and more shelf-stable foods rather than fresh items.

A Food Bank of Greater Pittsburgh spokesperson said one couple waited for their daughter to bring milk from Ohio because it was more than a dollar cheaper across the state line.

Ms. Horvath was looking for fresh fruits and vegetables at the pantry this week. She usually budgets her family’s meals far in advance in order to save, and has felt the gradual squeeze of inflation as prices have increased.

The Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, an organization aiding the region’s Black community, has also seen a growth in the number and size of families that need food assistance, according to CEO Carlos Carter.

Their emergency food programs located Downtown and in Duquesne are now serving more than twice the number of families than in May.

The Downtown location went from serving 19 families in May to 35 in August. In Duquesne, numbers rose from around six families to more than 20 in the same timespan.

The new families are also in more desperate need, according to Mr. Carter.

“People now say that they are completely out of food,” he said.

The Urban League used to deliver food, but was forced to stop due to staffing shortages. An employee told Mr. Carter people are now paying jitney drivers $30 to go to Aldi’s rather than Giant Eagle just to make the most of the price differences.

Ms. Horvath has tried to shield her daughters from the strain of financial instability.

“I try to keep it away from them as much as possible, but they do feel it,” she said.